A World War II survivor who almost wasn't
By LOU MICHEL | The Buffalo (N.Y.) News | Published: November 26, 2012
When Roy F. Phillips received his draft notice in 1943, the 18-year-old Buffalo resident tried to get a deferment because he was helping support his disabled mother.
Phillips, a child of the Great Depression, had quit Hutchinson-Central High School and was working as an apprentice lineman for the Postal Telegraph Co. That was a step up from his previous job, peeling potatoes and washing dishing for $1 a night at the Globe Restaurant in the Seneca-Michigan neighborhood, where the family lived in a second-story tenement.
Life was hard.
His mother and father had split up, and as a boy, Phillips and his younger brother, Bob, often headed to the nearby downtown commercial district, where they scavenged wooden crates and boxes from trash set out by stores on Main Street.
"We took that wood home and burned it in the kitchen stove. That's how we stayed warm in the winter. A lot of times we didn't have money for the electric bill, and we'd have to burn candles and oil lamps for light," he said.
In trying to make a hardship case, Phillips pointed out that his older brother, Jack, was already serving in the military. The Army refused the deferment request, and Phillips accepted the decision. In reality, he said, he wanted to defend the country, but he also wanted to do right by his mother.
Once in uniform, he made a pleasant discovery: His hardscrabble life improved greatly.
"The Army was fine with me. You got three square meals a day and a bed to sleep in. Back home, my bed had been a cot," Phillips said.
He also toned up.
"When I'd been in high school, I could never climb up the rope in gym class, and I was always the last to be picked for a team. Basic training really built me up. There wasn't anything I couldn't do."
That included fight a war.
Phillips served with the 457th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, which had landed on D-Day "Plus One," June 7, 1944, at Omaha Beach, Normandy, though Phillips later arrived as a replacement.
"I was in Battery C, and we shot down 13 planes, and the total for the whole battalion was 43 planes as we made our way across France to Germany. We were in all the big battles, part of Gen. [George S.] Patton's 3rd Army."
On March 23, 1945, Phillips' unit ferried across Germany's Rhine River at night to the eastern shore.
"We were called to protect the initial pontoon bridge of the 3rd Army that they were building. When we got across the Rhine, we went into a field near the bridge and dug in our guns waiting for daylight."
The bridge, near Oppenheim, was completed by sunrise, and troops and equipment started moving across it. The Germans were not happy.
The skies above the span filled with enemy aircraft throughout the day, but anti-aircraft weaponry shielded the bridge. Then, shortly after 5 p.m., a swarm of planes zeroed in on the pits containing the 40-mm cannons and the 50-caliber machine guns.
"I was with the 50-caliber machine gun lying on top of the sandbags around the pit, and shrapnel hit me and two other guys," Phillips recalled. "I was hit in the abdomen. I could feel it. I ran to a foxhole and then said, 'I'm going to die if I stay in here.' I started running again, and our corporal shouted, 'Hit the dirt, Phillips, there's shrapnel still flying.' I hit the dirt. When it stopped, he came over and helped me."
Twice at a field hospital, Phillips later learned, he died and had to be revived.
His father, in fact, received a notice that he had been killed in action.
But Phillips survived and spent nine months recovering.
Despite his injuries, he knows he was one of the lucky ones that day.
"There were 12 men on our gun crew, and they nearly wiped us out. Three were killed, three were seriously wounded, and three were slightly wounded. One of the guys, Bill Hesson, was my best friend, and he was killed."
After being discharged, life continued to improve for Phillips. In 1948, he landed a job with the U.S. Postal Service and retired as a letter carrier in 1983. For the last four decades, he and his wife, the former Marilyn Donner, have lived on a small farm in Royalton.
He said he has been fortunate "in all respects of life," having come a long way from those lean days of childhood and dangerous days at war.
"I thank God every day for what I have," he said.
And by the way, while Phillips was serving in the Army, he sent money home every month to help his mother pay the bills.